To the uninitiated, the dizzying clash of sound and colour found in Japan’s pachinko parlours can lead to a feeling of total sensory overload. Saccharine jingles combine with a variety of mechanical clicks, whirs and beeps, and the near-deafening crash of thousands of tiny metal balls cascading down through rows of machines. Simultaneously, lurid LCD screens glare through the invariably smoke-hazed atmosphere, displaying the grinning features of popular characters or brash words of encouragement to keep playing. The overall experience is one of near impenetrable confusion and, perhaps, slight nausea.
Nonetheless, the pachinko parlour is ubiquitous on the streets of any Japanese city, and attracts a surprisingly broad range of players, from students to grandmothers. Enthusiasts think nothing of sinking many hours into pachinko, a game not dissimilar to pinball, in the hopes of winning big, and it’s not uncommon to see small crowds forming outside of larger parlours, waiting for opening time.
In spite of the seemingly fearsome learning curve, the popularity of this once distinctly Japanese pass time has increased exponentially in overseas markets in recent years, to the point where pachinko tourisms is becoming firmly established as a micro-industry in and of itself.
Neighbouring South Korea is the most prominent target for this new marketing strategy. Up until seven years ago, the country enjoyed a thriving pachinko industry of its own, with over 1,500 parlours in operation. The introduction of stringent anti-gambling laws to combat rising levels of addiction however has subsequently forced players further afield to get their fix.
The southern Japanese city of Fukuoka now welcomes between three and five million South Korean tourists each year and, according to travel industry insiders, a rising percentage of these visitors are making the trip with the intention of spending the majority of their time glued to this hybrid of pinball and slot machines.
A Tokyo-based advertising firm has now set up a website specifically targeting these overseas enthusiasts. Interested parlours wishing to advertise with the site pay a flat fee to do so, and are then promoted in way deemed appealing to foreigners. To date over 300 parlours have registered with the site, with operators anticipating that by 2014 this number will rise to over 1000.
By Sam Jones